The Sad Shepherd

Shepherd.   That cry’s from the first cuckoo of the year    
I wished before it ceased.    
Goatherd.   Nor bird nor beast    
Could make me wish for anything this day,    
Being old, but that the old alone might die,          
And that would be against God’s Providence.    
Let the young wish. But what has brought you here?    
Never until this moment have we met    
Where my goats browse on the scarce grass or leap    
From stone to stone.    
Shepherd.   I am looking for strayed sheep;    
Something has troubled me and in my trouble    
I let them stray. I thought of rhyme alone,    
For rhyme can beat a measure out of trouble    
And make the daylight sweet once more; but when    
I had driven every rhyme into its place    
The sheep had gone from theirs.    
Goatherd.   I know right well    
What turned so good a shepherd from his charge.    
Shepherd.   He that was best in every country sport    
And every country craft, and of us all    
Most courteous to slow age and hasty youth    
Is dead.    
Goatherd.   The boy that brings my griddle cake    
Brought the bare news.  
Shepherd.   He had thrown the crook away    
And died in the great war beyond the sea.    
Goatherd.   He had often played his pipes among my hills    
And when he played it was their loneliness,    
The exultation of their stone, that cried    
Under his fingers.    
Shepherd.   I had it from his mother,    
And his own flock was browsing at the door.    
Goatherd.   How does she bear her grief? There is not a shepherd    
But grows more gentle when he speaks her name,    
Remembering kindness done, and how can I,    
That found when I had neither goat nor grazing    
New welcome and old wisdom at her fire    
Till winter blasts were gone, but speak of her    
Even before his children and his wife.    
Shepherd.   She goes about her house erect and calm    
Between the pantry and the linen chest,    
Or else at meadow or at grazing overlooks    
Her labouring men, as though her darling lived,    
But for her grandson now; there is no change    
But such as I have seen upon her face    
Watching our shepherd sports at harvest-time    
When her son’s turn was over.    
Goatherd.   Sing your song,    
I too have rhymed my reveries, but youth  
Is hot to show whatever it has found    
And till that’s done can neither work nor wait.    
Old goatherds and old goats, if in all else    
Youth can excel them in accomplishment,    
Are learned in waiting.    
Shepherd.   You cannot but have seen    
That he alone had gathered up no gear,    
Set carpenters to work on no wide table,    
On no long bench nor lofty milking shed    
As others will, when first they take possession,    
But left the house as in his father’s time    
As though he knew himself, as it were, a cuckoo,    
No settled man. And now that he is gone    
There’s nothing of him left but half a score    
Of sorrowful, austere, sweet, lofty pipe tunes.    
Goatherd.   You have put the thought in rhyme.    
Shepherd.   I worked all day    
And when ’twas done so little had I done    
That maybe ‘I am sorry’ in plain prose    
Had sounded better to your mountain fancy [He sings.]    
‘Like the speckled bird that steers    
Thousands of leagues oversea,    
And runs for a while or a while half-flies    
Upon his yellow legs through our meadows,    
He stayed for a while; and we    
Had scarcely accustomed our ears    
To his speech at the break of day,    
Had scarcely accustomed our eyes    
To his shape in the lengethening shadows,    
Where the sheep are thrown in the pool,  
When he vanished from ears and eyes.    
I had wished a dear thing on that day    
I heard him first, but man is a fool.’    
Goatherd.   You sing as always of the natural life,    
And I that made like music in my youth  
Hearing it now have sighed for that young man    
And certain lost companions of my own.    
Shepherd.   They say that on your barren mountain ridge    
You have measured out the road that the soul treads    
When it has vanished from our natural eyes;    
That you have talked with apparitions.    
Goatherd.   Indeed    
My daily thoughts since the first stupor of youth    
Have found the path my goats’ feet cannot find.    
Shepherd. Sing, for it may be that your thoughts have plucked
Some medicable herb to make our grief    
Less bitter.    
Goatherd.   They have brought me from that ridge    
Seed-pods and flowers that are not all wild poppy. [Sings.]    
‘He grows younger every second  
That were all his birthdays reckoned    
Much too solemn seemed;    
Because of what he had dreamed,    
Or the ambitions that he served,    
Much too solemn and reserved.  
Jaunting, journeying    
To his own dayspring,    
He unpacks the loaded pern    
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,    
Of all that he had made.    
The outrageous war shall fade;    
At some old winding whitethorn root    
He’ll practice on the shepherd’s flute,    
Or on the close-cropped grass    
Court his shepherd lass,  
Or run where lads reform our daytime    
Till that is their long shouting playtime;    
Knowledge he shall unwind    
Through victories of the mind,    
Till, clambering at the cradle side,    
He dreams himself his mother’s pride,    
All knowledge lost in trance    
Of sweeter ignorance.’    
Shepherd.   When I have shut these ewes and this old ram    
Into the fold, we’ll to the woods and there  
Cut out our rhymes on strips of new-torn bark    
But put no name and leave them at her door.    
To know the mountain and the valley grieve    
May be a quiet thought to wife and mother,    
And children when they spring up shoulder high.

The Wild Swans at Coole. 1919.


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